Mr. Joseph P Garske is a retired private investor. He is an invited contributing writer to the www.BusinessThinker.com
He holds a bachelor degree in history from Harvard.
Ancient Athens is looked back upon and celebrated as the birthplace of a new and distinctive Western Civilization. Some of this attribution may, of course, be the enthusiastic embellishment of modern historians
Yet, there is much basis for the aura that still surrounds the city where Socrates in life and in death altered the course of history.
The pre-eminence of Athens is particularly important in the areas of politics and philosophy–two realms which in the eyes of ancient Athenians were inextricably related. But the world has changed a great deal in the intervening centuries, especially in our technologically defined age of Postmodernity.
Popular politics is still a very dominant influence in our time, albeit in forms that might be unrecognizable to the ancient Greeks. However, in the affairs of human thought and action the influence of philosophy has become almost wholly absent.
That is, philosophy in the Socratic sense: A way of life, a willingness to challenge even the most vaunted claim to authority, to fearlessly engage all the great questions of life and existence. Philosophy of this type has virtually disappeared.
Instead, in the present day our manner of living, our questions and reflections have come to be enclosed within a set of fixed limits. Our reality is greatly defined by both our institutions of authoritative learning and a ubiquitous electronic media.
Despite their potential to enhance human understanding, they have both come in many ways to delimit it. Ironically, this tendency to limitation of perspective and to diffidence in public discussion has been nowhere more obvious than in the recent matter of the Greek financial crisis.
If there is a single overriding determinant of world events today, it is the convulsions and machinations of the global economy. As a transcending presence it operates with an unrestrained technological ability to move capital, mobilize labor and appropriate resources. It lies beyond the control of political leaders as it lies beyond the sovereignty of any national population.
In the Postmodern atmosphere of today our two crucial sources for understanding the global economic regime have become intertwined with the purposes that sustain its growing reach. The sweep of its influence is beyond the scope of academic learning and inaccessible to examination by the popular media. This has occurred for the very reason that they have unavoidably become captive to it.
Public debate on the Greek problem quickly became on many levels merely about parties, policies and personalities–within a framework of values and assumptions that were never questioned. Ironically, this situation raises the possibility that the ancient Greeks might have something to teach us regarding even these matters.
After all, the famous Golden Age of Athens, when philosophy first reached the city, was also a time of wrenching crisis. All the tiny Greek polities existed under the shadow of a gigantic Persian Empire. Its tentacles of trade and diplomacy were transforming Greek life. The result was economic upheaval, incessant warfare and political dependency as the great empire consolidated its program of ecumenical hegemony.
Much like conditions during that ancient period, our world situation has made clear one sobering fact about the time in which we live: Politics on the level of the territorial-state has become compromised, or paralyzed, or perhaps more accurately, servile to the demands of a world financial regime which national leaders are powerless to resist.
Ultimately, the crisis of Greece today–or any number of countries tomorrow–exists as merely part of one great interrelated world phenomenon. If there is to be any possible solution, the first question becomes how to gain perspective on that problem, to understand it in its totality.
The second question would concern by what set of standards and considerations will these crises be resolved. What is the best and lasting resolution for all parties involved?
Possible answers to these questions may be seen in the methods and purposes of the ancient Greek Philosophers. Perhaps what the world needs today is a new Socrates.
That is, someone who stands outside the dominant paradigms and institutions. Someone unbeholden, who enters the conversation guided by more than utilitarian values and assumptions.
In the civic questions he confronted, Socrates began from the premise of an essential humanity shared by all persons–what he called The Soul. His larger purpose always assumed a quality inherent to the universe–what he called The Good.
Is it possible that questions about global finance might be resolved according to these measures? With an eye to the good of all peoples involved?
Such talk, of course, makes us uncomfortable today. Within the argot of political platitude, the collegial refuge of academic abstraction, or the ephemera of timely reportage, such an approach to global questions would seem anachronistic, or even quaint.
After all, this is the twenty-first century. The time of Socrates is long past.
Yet, when we realize the unlikelihood of such ideas being introduced, of anyone in the councils of public debate taking such a stand, we can better understand why the name of Socrates was so widely revered in the ancient world. We can more clearly understand the aura that surrounds his native city, even today.